Khaled Hosseini, the son of an Afghan diplomat and a teacher, was born in Kabul, where he spent his first eight years. When he was fifteen years old, his family sought political refuge in the United States, where he attended California schools and earned a medical degree before he turned to writing. Many critics invariably compare A Thousand Splendid Suns with Hosseini’s well-received first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), but the general consensus is that the newer book is more fully realized.
The novel is divided into four parts, the first tracing Mariam’s life through four years of marriage. Part 2 spans Laila’s early years until the death of her parents. In alternating chapters, part 3 brings the two women together in their relationship to Rasheed and to each other. Hosseini effectively builds tension in the scene in which the supposedly dead Tariq appears to Laila. Their quiet conversation is interspersed with Rasheed’s angry questions later that evening after little Zalmai informs him that his mother has had a visitor. Part 4 forms an epilogue for the living.
Hosseini’s characters represent contradictory aspects of Afghanistan. Rasheed, although a fundamentalist, is not even a good Muslim. He drinks liquor, enjoys pornography, and does not fast during Ramadan. Although it is difficult to read of Rasheed’s abuses, his intense pride in and love of his son contrast with his appalling insensitivity to girls and women. Hakim, Laila’s father, is his opposite: a husband who considers his wife and a gentle intellectual who has sacrificed much. Hakim’s warning to his daughter, “A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated,” is the antithesis of Rasheed’s terse comment to Mariam, “A woman’s face is her husband’s business only.”
The leading female characters form another contrast. Mariam is a poor, traditional woman, and Laila is a more modern and educated woman, but both are in conflict with their rigid patriarchal society. Mariam, who grows up unloved and alone, submits until she reaches the breaking point and must act; Laila, who is cherished by her father, never really gives up. Both become surprisingly strong.
Hosseini attempts to deliver a brief history of Afghanistan, including dates, as a necessary foundation for the Western reader. His novel encompasses some forty years of political struggle, with dominance shifting among feuding warlords, Soviets, Mujahideen, Taliban, and Americans. Kabul itself is the target of territorial leaders; fighting in the streets is rampant, and civilians are raped, tortured, and murdered. Although some critics attack the author’s “taste for melodramatic plotlines,” the violence of war is real.
The novel’s title is taken from a well-known seventeenth century poem by Persian poet S՚ib of Tabriz, written about the city of Kabul: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” Ironically, this is neither the modern Kabul the reader discovers nor the one Hosseini’s characters inhabit; it is an idealized city—a dream, a memory, a sorrowful reminder of what long ago might have been. The lines also form an elegy for Laila’s dead companion-wife: “mostly, Mariam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” Perhaps the lines also serves as a promise of what someday might come again.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a chronicle of political upheaval and the dreadful toll it takes, as well as an examination of the limited role of women in Afghan society. Many of its details were inspired by Hosseini’s visit to Afghanistan in 2003 and by the stories he heard there. As a physician, he saw firsthand the deprivations of the women’s hospital where Zalmai is born. His novel offers insights into an ancient, undeveloped country that has become a crucial concern of world politics; it provides an awareness of the cultural clashes that still exist there; and it offers a greater understanding of its people.